The Difficulty: “What Does this Teach Us” in the Babylonian Talmud: Amoraic vs. Stammaitic Usage
Keywords:Babylonian Talmud, terminology, editing, stam hatalmud, saboraim
The difficulty “what does this teach us (מאי קא משמע לן)” appears 176 times in the Babylonian Talmud, but is ascribed to amoraim in only nine of these cases. In its original amoraic usage, (1) it is always raised against another amoraic opinion; (2) The problem is always that the amoraic statement being questioned is unnecessary, for it was already known. The term used to express the difficulty is, “We have already learned this (תנינא)”— implying that this halakhah was already taught and need not be repeated. The difficulty is a literary one and does not express any opposition to the content. The amora raising the difficulty accepts the content of the amora’s statement with no reservations but questions the very need to teach it, for the same halakhah was taught in the past. I should emphasize that in amoraic usage this difficulty is not synonymous with the difficulty “that is obvious (פשיטא).” The former expresses repetitiveness, the latter obviousness.
The anonymous editors of the Babylonian Talmud, the “stam hatalmud/stam/stammaim” do not only add scores of such difficulties to the Talmudic record, but also deviate in many cases from the amoraic usage I described above. The stam directs this difficulty against tannaitic sources, mishnah and baraita, and even against interpretations and resolutions that were offered by the stammaim themselves. Moreover, the stammaim add other technical terms to the amoraic term “תנינא” that accompanied the difficulty: “We have already taught this once (תנינא חדא זימנא)”, “This is a mishnah (מתניתין היא),” “This was taught explicitly (הא בהדיא קתני לה)” and other such expressions. The claim made by amoraim that the amoraic source was already taught in a tannaitic source is transformed by the stammaim into a claim that one amoraic source was already taught in another amoraic source: “Behold Rav X [himself] said this another time.” The stam even goes so far as to use the term without any accompanying terms signaling repetitiveness, thereby using this difficulty as synonymous with the difficulty, “This is obvious (פשיטא).” At times the term is used simply as a demand for clarification and not even as a difficulty. Above all, the stam shifts the difficulty from being a literary-linguistic one, to one concerning the halakhic content of the statement. In the wake of the difficulty, the amora’s statement is at times even rejected.
This study bears some important methodological ramifications. The significant differences between how amoraim and stammaim use and understand this term again substantiates the chronological gap between the amoraic and stammaitic strata in the Babylonian Talmud. It further bolsters the historical reliability of the terms used and statements issued by amoraim. Moreover, this study affirms the notion that the Babylonian Talmud underwent gradual editing (“generation after generation”) and raises difficulties on the theory that the entire Babylonian Talmud was edited only at the end of its formation, as I explain at the end of the article. Finally, this study brings to the fore the phenomenon of the lack of consistent use and phrasing of technical terms in the stammaitic and saboraic strata of the Bavli.